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President's column

12 December 16

A legal round table in Beijing linked to an international infrastructure project, followed by a day shadowing a criminal defence solicitor in Stirling: just one week in the life of your President

by Eilidh Wiseman

From Beijing to Stirling. In one week I travelled almost 10,000 miles representing the Scottish solicitor profession at home and abroad. This role is truly a tremendous privilege.

Several months ago, following a successful visit to Edinburgh by the China Law Society, I was invited to participate in a delegation to Beijing. Sponsored and organised by the Great Britain China Centre and led by former President of the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips, the delegation was in China to take part in a round table on the rule of law with specific reference to the One Belt One Road initiative. This initiative is best explained as an immense infrastructure project involving 65 countries, linking Beijing to Western Europe by way of a re-creation of the old Silk and Maritime Roads.

What, you may ask, is the relevance of Scots law to this and the possible role of Scottish solicitors? Scotland has a mixed legal system, drawing from both civil and common law traditions. As such, we can find much in common with China’s civil system, yet can also relate to the common law in England, and other jurisdictions across the world. This type of mixed economy will most likely be needed on projects spanning different systems of law across so many countries. Dispute resolution mechanisms in particular need exploration, taking into account Eastern culture which is focused more on mediation than inquisition. I will be following up on these discussions with interested parties, including the Scottish Arbitration Centre, over the coming weeks.

Summary justice: the defence agent’s life

In Stirling I had the great pleasure to spend a day in the life of our Council member, Ken Dalling, a criminal defence agent. I had felt my lack of practical experience in criminal defence work was making it difficult for me at times to comprehend fully the day-to-day challenges of this type of practice.

It was a Tuesday court after a holiday Monday with multiple intermediate diets (a hearing in summary criminal proceedings to check readiness to go to trial). Many of these were continued, often due to non-availability of police evidence, or awaiting a decision on funding and thereby resulting in another appearance with no additional payment for the agent. This, along with a custody case, where the accused is in Kirkcaldy and the court is waiting for his transfer until after 4pm, opened my eyes to the “dead time” in court, where as yet there is still no wifi for solicitors (coming soon, we’re promised).

I watched as Mr Dalling tried to input information onto the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) portal on patchy 4G, to little avail. Another solicitor was just back from taking a client with significant mental health issues to the GP, as his client could not obtain an appointment without a phone number – the “social care” role (unpaid) performed by our members in this and other areas of practice is immense. And let’s not forget the admin. This truly is extensive.

I have now seen first-hand the online SLAB system and the abatement on accounts. It really helps to drive home the amount of work undertaken for so little return. Humbling. We are making a difference to the lives of many on the margins of our society, but we really must question: “What price justice?” We are told there is no more money, but in reality there is money: it comes down to a choice about priorities and how to spend the money there is.

More than mere baubles

Moving on from the future of legal aid, to the future of the legal profession – please help us to support the next generation of Scottish solicitors by sponsoring a bauble on our Christmas tree. Money donated will go towards funding the legal education of students from disadvantaged backgrounds through our new charity, Lawscot Foundation: www.lawscotfoundation.org.uk. When you have donated, don’t forget to tweet about it using #Baublefest

Another charity doing great work is LawCare. Christmas can be a difficult time for some people. LawCare provides a free, independent and confidential helpline on any matters that may be worrying you. Please do use the service if you need to. The Society is delighted to support this charity.

I wish you all best wishes for Christmas and a successful 2017. See you next year!

Until next time,
Eilidh

Eilidh Wiseman is President of the Law Society of Scotland – president@lawscot.org.uk; Twitter: @eilidh_wiseman 

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